From March 17th to April 19th, San Jose Repertory Theatre presented the musical Making Tracks that tells the tale of several generations of a Chinese-American family from the 1860s to the present day. The musical, written by Welly Yang, Brian Yorkey, and composer Woody Pak and directed by Jeff Steitzer, made its California premiere with this production, the largest it has seen thus far after smaller shows in Seattle, New York, and concert versions in Taiwan.

Making Tracks' rocking score takes audiences on a journey across a variety of times and places. From the back-breaking work endured by Chinese immigrants who built America's railroads, to the internment camps during World War II, up to today where Asian-Americans have had a major influence in creating the high-tech infrastructure of the US, the musical presents a comprehensive look at one family's heroic journey. More in the style of Rent than Flower Drum Song, Making Tracks makes history as much as it makes music by presenting the Asian-American experience in a way not seen by most theatre audiences.

For LD Lap-Chi Chu, it was indeed a labor of love, and he went out of his way to be able to be a part of the show. “I've done more pieces from other cultures than from my own because the opportunity just hasn't been there,” he says. “While the lighting may be very similar from one culture to another, the sensitivity that I brought to it by having a much stronger and personal reaction to the story hopefully helped with the storytelling. The technical skills remain the same, but considering the subject matter, the race specificity helps.”

Since Making Tracks is an epic tale, Chu wanted the lighting to keep the show as fluid as possible, as it constantly moved back and forth in time. “We needed something that would tie everything together yet still keep a sense of the past and present,” he explains. “The inspiration was to keep all these generations together.”

The show's book underwent a fairly significant rewrite which also included the addition of a new choreographer — Joey McKneely — who incorporated some new dance sequences that move the story along. “There are a number of dance scenes that not only take place in a Chinese nightclub in San Francisco, but also in an internment camp and other settings, so the rig is very much like a dance lighting plot in that there is a great deal of sidelight.”

The rig was replete with full-stage, double hung shins and head-highs with scrollers. “With all the dancing, we were going to have in the show, we decided to go with this form, accentuating this kind of lighting, and we kept shafts of sidelight to isolate between upstage and downstage so many layers can happen at once,” Chu says. “We also use the sidelight for storytelling; characters representing the past come in discreetly upstage, while downstage there were characters in the present. The characters in the present would meld together with the characters representing the past. So the rig gave us that sort of flexibility.”

Flexibility was vital, since the show was undergoing changes, rewrites, and dance scene additions up until opening night. Also, since space was at a minimum, the rig's flexibility made it even more of an asset. “We went through situations where I was using other pieces of scenery as a bounce drop, so the huge choreography of lighting's relationship to scenery was a big challenge, and a lot of things changed as we were inserting scenes, and things weren't happening in sequence that we designed them for,” Chu says. “The great thing about the moving lights was that every time we made a change, we could reprogram instead of having a physical work call to refocus or re-hang things. There was a lot of scenery, so this dance plot that we put up made it more specific and helped us make it possible. That's the kind of flexibility that we needed in order to tell a good story in a rather short period.”

The moving lights that Chu found himself relying on the most were eight Martin MAC 500s. “They were the best choice for us because of their size since there was a lot of scenery, and everything was hung within an inch of its life,” he says. “We needed a compact unit that could do everything — it had to be a theatrical fixture as well as a concert fixture. That flexibility in a compact size was a huge requirement. Some people like to talk about how many conventional fixtures the moving lights replaced, but I don't think we could even do that because there was not much space for anything else to go in. The MAC 500 really did everything from roaming specials to effects to even being like an architectural fixture in one scene where it scraped light across the wall.”

At the finale of the show, there is a rock concert featuring one of the main characters, and the MAC 500s were an essential component once more. “They became props and did a big chasing, flashing show. They are a very agile unit, and they faded nicely when we needed them to or as a special that just drew attention somewhere. We needed everything we had and used [the MAC 500s] in every theatrical way possible. I don't think we could've done the show without them.”

But the lighting was not all flash and bumps. “We did some really old school things like popping the lens off a fresnel to make a big shadow for one sequence when a character hangs himself,” Chu says. “We went back to some real basic lighting. Equipment wise, we used a lot of Morpheus S-Fader [color scroller] units, but otherwise it was a standard ETC Source Four® rig along with PAR64s that covered the stage. The Martins did most of the work in making something special and unique.”

Chu had never worked on a show featuring an all-Asian cast before, so he was mindful when dealing with color for Asian skin tones. “I spent a lot of time on our base colors since it's an all-Asian cast. We have a lot more yellow in our skin, and it took a lot more color correcting than usual,” he says. “I went through tons of followspot colors just to color correct it. You do the wrong thing, and people start looking green.”

He added that he was very sensitive about making sure the color temperature was right, even though it added a lot more time and work to his schedule. “Just to color correct every little thing was challenging, even though I could put a light on my own skin and see what it looks like,” he says. “I did expect [the time consuming aspect of color correcting], but there's no getting around it and the many passes that you have to take at it. You see it, and it rings true, or it doesn't ring true. But arriving at those very specific color choices takes a lot of time. The entire palette is a different challenge, but I'm happy with where we ended up.”

As Making Tracks weaves its tale across generations, audiences get to know a part of American history they are likely not very familiar with unless they are of Asian decent. For one designer, the tale was even more personal than usual, and Chu designed more from his reflexes than from endless research. “It's telling the story of my past, and maybe that came out in the cueing,” he says.

MAKING TRACKS EQUIPMENT LIST
8 Martin Professional Mac 500 575W
4 PAR 64 MFL 1kW
10 PAR 64 WFL 1kW
2 ETC Source Four® 10° 575W
50 ETC Source Four 19° 575W
59 ETC Source Four 26° 575W
39 ETC Source Four 36° 575W
1 ETC Source Four 50° 575W
6 ETC Source Four PAR NSP 575W
18 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
8 Altman Far Cyc T3 Strip 1kW
4 Altman Zip Strip 3cir/30 lamp EYC 750W
4 Altman Zip Strip 3cir/30 lamp EYF 750W
5 8" Fresnel 1kW
2 Lycian Super Arc 400W
18 Morpheus S-Fader Color Scroller
4 GAM TwinSpin
1 Strand 520 console
1 Strand 550 console
348 Strand 2.4kW Dimmer
8 Strand 6kW Dimmer
1 Le Maitre G300 hazer/fogger